Healthy Communication and the Kingdom of Heaven

Healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community.  Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls.

As a leader, then, it becomes a high priority for me to develop a habit of communicating in ways that foster grace, sensitivity and understanding.  If I learn to do this, those around me will not only respond with good will but will hopefully adopt those habits and pass them along in their circles.

If I want to make the practice of healthy communication a priority this year in my church, home or organization, here’s where I’d start:

Say more.  By some strange quirk of fate I,  as a southerner, do not drink sweet tea. I only make it when family comes to my house, and then I make it poorly because my idea of “sweet” and their idea of “sweet” are worlds apart. “Good tea” by southern standards means adding more sugar than any human could conceivably consume.

What works for sweet tea works for communication. What we think of as “over-communicating” is likely the amount needed for someone to get it.  Never mind what you think they need; start with what they actually need.

Affirm more. This is the pattern Paul teaches in his letters: start every conversation with affirmation. Doing this well will right-size your expectations, so you’re not constantly noticing the gap between what people are doing and what you think they ought to be doing.  We can all learn to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say. In fact, we must learn to do that before we can say anything at all that will be heard.

Blast less. Blast people enough and they will stop trusting what you say. Send enough email bombs and you’ll produce someone who cringes when they see your name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and you’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

If you’re prone to sending angry emails or venting on social media, find a way to stop yourself. Get a system that checks your intentions. Here’s the decision I’ve made where corporate communication is concerned:  I will not send any emotion by email/ text/ Facebook message/ twitter that isn’t positive and affirming and I will not communicate negativity in public (which includes Facebook and twitter). It just doesn’t seem like a mature or healthy way to get a message across. If I have serious words to share, I will always do that in person. And always covered in prayer.

Ask more questions.  This ends up being a Kingdom-building habit. Far too late in life, I’ve learned that most of my frustration and miscommunication is a product of not asking enough questions before jumping to conclusions. Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings, but on God and His Kingdom. When I invest the time it takes to ask clarifying questions, seeking not so much “to be understood as to understand” (a prayer of St. Francis), I am reaching for God’s vision, God’s perspective, God’s Kingdom.

Finally, assume the best. In the absence of information, most folks assume the worst. That’s human nature. The nature of Christ, however, is to assume the best in others. In the absence of information, assume that those in your circles are doing the best they can, that they are not out to offend you, that they are working out their salvation daily just as you are. Give the people around you the benefit of the doubt and you’ll discover that the grace you give flows both ways.

By saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions, we develop a Kingdom perspective. I am convinced that healthy churches and organizations are built on a foundation of healthy communication. In a season when so much communication is destructive and negative, I challenge you to make it a priority to build an intentionally healthy system of communication that models grace, sensitivity and understanding.

 

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Five Marks of Great Accountability (or, Who is your Nathan?)

David was what we might call a high-functioning sinner. Tons of talent. A mighty warrior. Obviously charismatic (he attracted thousands of people). God’s choice to lead Israel.

And also (by the way) an adulterer and a murderer.

Nathan, David’s priest, got word of his sin. In an act of sheer brilliance and strength, he decided to let David walk gently into guilt by telling him a story. He said, “Once there were two men. One was rich and one was poor. One had flocks and herds of animals. The other one had one little lamb. Just one. Because it was all he had, this man loved his little lamb. He let it live in the house and eat from his table. He held that little lamb in his arms and rocked it like a child. He counted it as a child, one of his own.

“Meanwhile, the rich man sat in his wealth. When a traveler came to visit, the rich man decided that — rather than kill one of his own animals (of which there seemed no end) — he’d have a servant go after the poor man’s precious lamb. To feed his guests and enjoy a meal, he killed another man’s lamb.

“And then devoured it. Without the slightest remorse.”

As Nathan told his story, David began to seethe. How dare this monster? Furious at the injustice, David stormed, “The man who did this deserves to die! And he owes that poor man four lambs for the one he took, because he showed no pity!”

David walked right up to his own sin and somehow missed seeing himself there. Nathan said, “You’re that man, King David. Rich beyond words. King of Israel. Lands, people, power. The Lord has given you everything, and yet you take from a soldier a wife he loved rather than enjoying your own.

“And then, to make matters, worse, you kill him to cover for yourself.”

To be exposed is both horrible and holy. None of us likes to come face to face with our own depravity, to see it for what it is after soaking in our own delusions. The mark of one after God’s heart is the humility — when faced with our sin — to call it what it is. “I have sinned against the Lord,” David admitted. To which Nathan replied, in the very next breath, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You won’t die.”

We could make a message out of any one of those words in that brief exchange. There is David’s humility and the mark of healthy repentance. There is Nathan’s courageous, prophetic voice. There is the demonstration of God’s grace, poured out instantaneously in response to repentance. David’s admission and Nathan’s response bring to mind the scene in the parable of the prodigal son, when the son returns in contrition and the father runs to meet him. Something of God’s character is revealed. God is for us, not against us. God’s heart is always ready to run in our direction.

Nathan is a sign of God’s grace. Without someone with guts enough to show David his sin, he might have remained in it until his dying day. A life steeped in unrepentant sin turns sour over time. Without Nathan, David may well have ruined his place as the ancestor of God’s Messiah. Nathan’s truth-telling had a history-altering ripple effect.

Nathan is the real hero in this story, which prompts me to want a Nathan for all of us who lead. Who is your Nathan? Who in your life is wise enough, gentle enough, courageous enough to speak truth to you? Who is holding you accountable for spiritual growth? “Nathans” don’t usually just show up, uninvited, to invest in your life. Nathans are prayed for, sought after, developed.

If you’re looking for a Nathan to hold you accountable, look for:

  1. Someone who will be consistent: They can’t help if they aren’t there. Look for someone who tends to follow through, whose yes is yes.
  2. Someone whose only agenda is spiritual growth: The worst kind of accountability is someone who feels the need to “fix” you. Look for someone who genuinely respects you as a leader, and who is invested in your life and ministry. Someone who is leaning in, not leaning out.
  3. Someone who wants a relationship: The best kind of accountability is a two-way street. Look for someone who is both teachable and a teacher, who is open to both give and take in the discipline of accountability.
  4. Someone whose life and walk you respect: In order for someone to speak into my life, I need to know they are living out a disciplined faith in theirs. Look for someone who walks the walk, whose life is bearing fruit.
  5. Someone who considers this a sacred trust: What is said in any accountability conversation ought to stay with the two of you, and that ought to be an automatic assumption that never needs to be repeated. In my own community, there is nothing I wouldn’t share with my whole church, but my whole church doesn’t need to hear it all. And when it is told, it ought to be me telling it. Anyone who shares prayer and accountability with a leader needs to respect both the leader and those s/he leads.

As a leader, here’s what I need most. I need people in my life who love me enough to tell me the truth. I need straight-shooters who can cut to the point and trust me to handle it. I need adults in my life who are more devoted to Jesus and his Kingdom than to the kinds of southern politeness that leave me stuck in a bad place.

The Kingdom starves for prophetic voices like that.

And so do I.

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Blessed are the offensive, for they are like Jesus.

Maybe Jesus really is the One.  If he is, John the Baptist needs to know.

Sitting in prison (see Luke 7), it became John’s driving question.  Is this guy the one?  Either he is and is worth dying for, or he is a lunatic in which case we need to keep looking. Maybe find someone who ticks off fewer people.  John sends a few of his students to Jesus to ask the question.  Before anyone gets further down the road, they need fresh assurances.

Those disciples of John find Jesus and ask him who exactly he is and he says, “You tell John this. You tell him the blind see, the lame walk, people are hearing good news about the Kingdom of God for a change, and it is downright scandalous. And God bless the ones who are not offended by that.”

I love Jesus for that response. There he was, standing in the middle of a marketplace healing people and talking to people and loving people. And the whole time, he gets it that healing and preaching and doing the work of the Kingdom is probably offending more people than it is attracting. Jesus gets the irrationality of that. He gets the danger of it. Jesus gets the weirdness of it. Of how easy it is to heal someone and offend someone in the same breath. Maybe even the same person.

Jesus gets that sometimes people will do their very best and will give their all and will pour out their hearts and will still offend someone. Will offend someone they had no idea they were offending. Will offend someone they don’t even know … period. Because good news isn’t good for those who would rather not be whole.

Jesus gets it that in this life, there will be offense taken and hot air blown and houses battered. There will be battles fought in spiritual places and mean spirits coming after us, who plan to huff and puff and blow us down. You’d better have a strong foundation, Jesus says. You’d better make sure you dig down deep and build your house on the rock. Otherwise, you’ll be blown away by all those offended spirits.

Blessed is the one who is not offended by that. The odd one. The rare one. The crazy one.

And I want to thank Jesus for all the ways he so beautifully speaks directly into my life, just by the way he lived his. I want to thank him for all the things he gives me permission to feel and say and live. Thank you, Jesus, for telling me before I needed to know it that sometimes I will offend people just like you did. And that it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m offensive … at least not every time. It might simply mean that — like you — I unlatched a Kingdom gate when someone wasn’t ready to walk through it.

Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Blessed is Jesus. What a friend.

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When the Church Hurts (part two)

This post is part two in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our last post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict.  In this post, we address some practical ways we, too, can respond redemptively to conflict.

Back in my college days, I had a professor who was convinced that the concept of community was at the root of all other philosophical discussions around building healthy societies. When I was in seminary, I visited The Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. and heard Gordon Cosby talk eloquently about the the central role of community in all Kingdom-advancing work. Those two voices in my life have deeply shaped what I believe about the nature and role of the Church. I believe the Church plays a key role in the reclamation of the world. By promoting healthy, committed communities that follow Jesus faithfully, we model his life and become an answer to his prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth …”

Modeling healthy communities depends on mastering healthy conflict. Until a community of faith learns to deal constructively (redemptively, graciously, maturely) with its differences, it will not be able to move forward with spiritual and emotional maturity. The first option ought always to be for those with issues to lean in and work it out. In this post, we will think practically about how Jesus’ people ought to act when working it out doesn’t work.

What happens when it is time to leave?

1. If you can’t say something nice …  The first step toward reconciliation is learning how to speak graciously. We serve no positive purpose by talking negatively about another church – even those of which we’ve been part. Our negative comments about the Body of Christ can hurt others. 

If the conflict in a previous church is significant, then many folks who are still there are still hurting. Some of them are also innocent by-standers – people who did nothing to cause conflict. When we make negative comments about their church we can cause great harm.

Likewise, we must be sensitive to those in our present Christian circles. We must be sensitive especially to the members of our new church family by not involving them in the conflict of another church. Strongly resist sharing negative stories or comparing churches. To do so only plants seeds of bitterness in a fresh field. What our mothers said really is true: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. 

Better yet, find something nice to say. Kindness is a wonderful antidote to bitterness.  As Paul said to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable, whatever is pure and pleasing, if there is anything of excellence or anything worthy of praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

2. Keep praying. Pray, and pray some more. Nothing else will do more to create a healing environment in your soul. Keep the prayer lines open but understand that reconciliation is a process, not an event. Healing doesn’t happen overnight.  In fact, you may need to talk not just to God but to a human being in order to heal. If that is the case, then seek out the listening ear and prayer support of a trusted friend who can help to process the thoughts. Be honest with them and ask them to walk with you spiritually through this time. Ask them to pray for you and hold you accountable until you reach a place of peace and reconciliation with all parties involved.

3. If you can’t say something nice (part two) … “Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

While it is always better to stay quiet if we can’t say something nice, God will usually challenge us to go a step further. After all, even if we manage to keep quiet about our pain and anger, our inability to think positively about the church we’ve left likely indicates a deeper brokenness that needs to be acknowledged and explored. If we can’t seem to think kind thoughts or say nice things about the people of another church or group, then why is that? What is the real source of that anger, that pain? 

To answer that question for yourself, set aside time to be with the Lord. Ask for his insight.  Rarely if ever will God allow us to simply bury our pain and move on. When we seek him in prayer and ask for the mind of Christ, he will show us where we have failed as well as where we have been wounded by others. When we ask, he will show us a path to forgiveness that likely includes praying God’s best over those with whom we are in conflict. Journaling may help in that process. Again, the help of a trusted friend and a strong prayer partner is invaluable. The pastor or perhaps even an outside counselor may be a good step at this point.

Churches are made of people, and wounded people can do painful things to one another. Our responses to others’ brokenness says a lot more about us than them. Learning to respond to pain with grace is a gift to the Church and a strike against the darkness.

Find part three in this series of posts here

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Just how angry are you?

The Institute for Ethics at Duke University conducted an online survey of about 1,500 people as part of a project designed to measure the morality quotient of Americans. They asked people to rate how likely they’d be to do certain morally questionable things like, for instance, kicking a dog in the head. As it turns out (happily), seven of eight respondents would refuse to do that and in fact, would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick Fido in the noggin.

However, half of the participants said they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike. For free.

Would you be among them?

There is no denying it: we have a maddening political climate. We also have anger issues. Anger is not a secular issue; we who follow Jesus are not immune. Just check your Facebook page. In fact, more and more, anger is becoming part of our caricature. Angela, the token Christian on The Office is an angry, tight-lipped, buttoned-up woman. In most cartoons and commentaries, we’re known as the ones who sling condemnation.

So really … are we that angry?

(You’ve heard the old joke– right? — about the shipwreck survivor they discovered on an uncharted island. The ship that spotted him sent a rescue team to shore and found the man alone among three huts. They asked what the three huts were for, since there was no one else around. The survivor explained, “Well, I live in one and go to church in another.” “What about the third hut, then?” asked a rescue team member. “Oh, that,” growled the man. “That’s where I used to go to church.” It is funny only because it is familiar.)

Face it. Christians have something of a reputation and it is only getting worse. I suspect we’re operating out of fear. We’ve pitted our values against a permissive culture and it has left us feeling powerless. In the comparison we’re accused of being angry, condemnation-tossing haters. And to some extent, we deserve the criticism. We who follow Jesus too easily pander to the reputation of being known for what we’re against more than what we’re for.

Wouldn’t it be exciting for Christians to be known more for the infectiousness of their faith than the accuracy of their tomato-tossing?

George Barna is a researcher who does ethnographic research on churches, and one study he did showed that only 4% of adults make their decisions based on the Bible. In his book, Think Like Jesus, he says, “the primary reason that people do not act like Jesus is because they do not think like Jesus … We’re often more concerned with survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.”

Hear that again: We are often more concerned about survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.

“Survival amidst chaos” hits close to home, doesn’t it? These last couple of years have been hard on our country. I hope we are on the healing edge of a long season of chaos, and chaos has not brought out the best in us. We are not thinking like Jesus. We have become so focused on what is in front of us that we’ve forgotten what is beyond the horizon. We’ve engaged emotionally with difficult issues but have failed to speak with integrity, offering emotional responses that are more defensive than intelligent. Our go-to response is more fear than faith.

But you say, “A person can’t sit idly by and let the world roll over them.” Or more personally, “You don’t know my circumstance — how hard I’ve had it and how much it hurts. I can’t lose this war, too.”

To that, Jesus would say, “It doesn’t matter. The ground of our forgiveness is not our circumstances. The ground of our grace is not emotion.” Jesus told a whole story to make this very point (Matthew 18:23-35) saying that grace is a mark of the Kingdom.

Here’s the thing: If it all depends on circumstance, we are right to be desperate. Circumstances can seem hopeless but circumstances do not control my capacity for joy. We who know the end of the story should be responding to life and news and “rumors of wars” with a faith that proclaims something greater than our immediate circumstances. In other words, I don’t have to wait for folks to act right so I can have peace; I can live there now, by faith.

What I am responsible for is the character of my responses to life, and what those responses reveal about the character of Christ in me.

Brothers and sisters, whatever the current circumstance, we know how the story ends. We know what is beyond the horizon.

Let’s live and speak as if Jesus is who he says he is.

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The courage to shift care

I had the pleasure some time back of being with about 1300 college students for two sessions on healing. Their morning chapel service was a requirement so I didn’t expect folks to respond in any great number. I was thinking we’d prime the pump in the morning, but that those who showed up for the evening service would be the ones who really entered into the opportunity for healing.

I was wrong.shifting-care2

Something like a hundred people responded in the morning session. Another fifty or sixty were seen in pairs all around the room, praying for each other. The incredible thing about it for me was that all those college students came forward, fell to their knees and then began ministering to each other.

They weren’t looking for an adult or a professional to do their praying for them. They didn’t ask me, the chaplain or any other adult to do what they could do for themselves. They just needed space and an invitation to care for each other.

It was beautiful. And biblical.

Carey Nieuwhof talks about having courage to shift care. It is the principle of Exodus 18, where Jethro confronts Moses about trying to do everything himself. He says (my loose interpretation), “You’re going to kill yourself by leading this way. You need to appoint others to care for the people, so that your strength is reserved for leadership-level decisions.”

When the church professionalizes spiritual care to the point that we make “regular” people feel powerless to care for one another, we have absolutely failed to be the church. Calling it “pastoral care” reveals the core of the problem. Pastoral care is what pastors do; “people care” is what communities do.

Nieuwhof says, “Even Jesus adopted the model of group care, moving his large group of hundreds of  disciples into groups of seventy, twelve, three, and then one. Group-based care isn’t just practical, it’s biblical.”

And it is most definitely Methodist. This was the foundation of Wesley’s structure. Wesley’s model of discipleship was rooted in a system of groups; in fact he didn’t let you come to worship if you weren’t in a group.*

Groups are what it means to be Methodist because sanctification is what it means to be Methodist.

The gift of it for the faith community is that it spreads out the responsibility of spiritual friendship. This is our vision at Mosaic. It is for relationships to be 360-degree relationships. Not just person to pastor or person to group leader, but person to person to person to person, building a web of friendships that build a strong community.

In our tribe, that’s how it is done. Any other formula only leads to burn-out and a poor imitation of what church is meant to be.

* See this article, especially the quote by Kevin Watson. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/hows-your-spiritual-life-the-class-meeting-for-today

See also Watson’s exceptional book: The Class Meeting.

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The Jesus Prayer and the Cure for Arrogance

Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called Blink, about the thousand decisions we make every day in the smallest slices of time — choices we make in split-seconds during a conversation — that determine how we respond to life at the subconscious level.Gladwell interviewed one psychologist who has made a study of watching couples in conversation.

This guy has become so adept at watching their non-verbal communication that he can tell with incredible accuracy how likely they are to divorce after just a few minutes of watching them talk. His point is that how we react to other people in the briefest moments (even non-verbally) says a lot about what’s beneath the surface.This psychologist has boiled hundreds of facial expressions down to four major categories. He calls them the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt. And he says the real killer among those four is contempt.

“You’d think criticism would be the worst, because it maligns character,” he says. “But contempt is worse, because it puts one person above another. It’s when we look down on another person that we do the most damage.” And it is so damaging, the psychologist says, that it affects our immune system.Contempt is a killer. No wonder the enemy of our souls has made a career out of getting us to go there. He wants us to make pecking orders. To make ourselves better than others. The enemy has made quite a career out of doing nothing more than keeping your heart hard toward another human being. And it is brilliant, really. He can make it slice both ways, so we feel chronically inadequate while we’re tearing others down so they never feel good enough, either.

That’s the tactic of the enemy of our souls.

The remedy, according to Jesus, is to keep our eyes on our own work. He told a story about it to emphasize the point (Mt. 18:9-14). When a religious leader and a tax collector happened to be praying at the same time in the temple one day, the contrast was stark. The religious leader spent his time feeling good about his position somewhere above the other guy. The tax collector spent his words confessing his own sins.

Out of the tax collector’s example has come one of the most repeated prayers in the world: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Orthodox believers have fleshed it out in New Testament terms: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is often called “the prayer of the heart.”

This is the prayer of holiness and a cure for both contempt and arrogance. I spent most of my seminary years praying this prayer daily and found that after a thousand repetitions I still didn’t come to the end of it. I found in it both a profound confession of faith and a pathway to humility. I found my humanity and God’s holiness in this prayer. Thomas Merton recommended praying it daily, meditating on each phrase separately so as to plumb its depths.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

If you are in need of a fresh discipline for a new year, try praying the Jesus Prayer daily. Let it do its work of sanctification in your spirit as you connect with saints through the ages who have prayed these words earnestly. Let it bring your home to yourself, to your own work, to your own need for the One whose mercy is worth the cry of your heart.

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The Danger of Distraction

In my Monday post, I talked about the distractions that seem to be keeping the United Methodist Church from fulfilling its mission. I want to talk more about distractions and their effect on souls and systems.

I wonder if there has ever been a climate so ripe for distraction. So much information coming at us from every possible lit-up screen. We are distracted by social media, by our phones, by unwelcome relationships, by our phones, by intruding thoughts and lusts and wants and needs, by our phones … we are distracted.

Listening to a message by Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), I learned something about that word — distraction. In medieval times, there was a barbaric torture tactic called “drawing and quartering.” Each of a person’s four limbs were tied to four ropes, and each of those ropes was tied to four horses, who were then commanded to run in four different directions. It was a horrible practice.

Do you know what the French called it? Distraction.

When I saw that image and heard that term, I thought … yes! That’s it! By making us rush to catch up, by keeping us in mental chaos, by luring us away from life-giving habits (like spiritual disciplines), by making us say yes to things we ought never say yes to, distractions rob us of rest and keep us from being formed into the likeness of Christ. No wonder one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-discipline. It is discipline that pulls the distracted parts of us back together.

We want to believe that spiritual disciplines are for people who have too much time on their hands. Disciplines are not just for people who have all the time in the world to sip another cup of coffee while doing an entire Beth Moore study in one sitting. Who needs discipline when you’ve got nothing but time? Disciplines are not for people who have too much time; they for people who have too many distractions.

Let me say that again: Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions.

Disciplines bring the pulled-apart, conflicting parts of us back together again. They help us to live inside our limits so we don’t end up without enough energy to take a shower much less spend time resting in the Lord. They help us become mindful of our day-to-day decisions and how they feed into our spiritual goals. They encourage us to create life-giving habits (Bible reading, prayer, meditation, worship, community life) that shape our thoughts and set the tone of our day. They give us courage to say “no” more often so we can say a holy yes to things that feed into our formation.

God calls us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son and there are some ways we can examine ourselves to see if we’re on that track. We know our lives are being shaped into the likeness of Christ when our conversation begins to be transformed by love, and our reactions are filtered through the Holy Spirit. We know it is happening when our calendars aren’t so far beyond our limits that we can’t rest in the comfort that God’s got it. We know it is happening when we have some ability to say no to some things so we can say a holy yes to things that will take us someplace spiritually.

Disciplines make busy people slow down enough to let their souls sink into Jesus. And that’s where the real spiritual work is done. It is done in the secret place, when deep calls to deep. It isn’t easy. But the joy at the other end of it is a kind of rest that pulls all the distracted, chaotic, directionless pieces of our lives together.

  • What are you sure of, and what doubts are creating spiritual anxiety?
  • What is pulling at you, and what distractions are keeping you from spiritual formation?
  • What does your calendar say about your life … and about how much you trust God?
  • How willing are you to make changes to your life not just for the sake of your own spiritual formation, but for the sake of others?

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Two Pockets (or, a lesson in how we see ourselves)

Simcha Bunim was a Jewish rabbi who lived in Poland in the 1700s. He is best known for what might be called the parable of the two pockets.

The parable begins with two slips of paper. On one slip is written, “I am but dust and ashes.” On the other slip is written, “For my sake the world was created.” These two slips of paper are meant to be carried around in two pockets.

Rabbi Bunim said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”

The rabbi’s point was that we are at once both things. We are both sinners and saints, dust and treasure, limited but with tremendous potential, fallen but loved. And we ought to approach our goals and lives with that mind set. Christians would say we are fallen people for whom Christ died.

Dust, yes … but dust so loved by God that he gave his Son.

What if you entered into Rabbi Bunim’s exercise? Write these two statements on slips of paper, then spend time with each of them. Begin with the one with which you are less comfortable. Which of these two statements resonates with you?

Are you more of the mindset that the world was created with you at the center? Many of us live there a bit too comfortably, whether we admit it or not. We are the center of our universe. We won’t say so but we feel entitled. We believe that on most things, we are right and everyone else is missing it. We will make sure our own interests are served and we will let pride keep us from learning the hard lessons. We are the ones who need a little more time with our dust-and-ashes reality — to cut through the pride, to change our perspective, to get us back to the level of learner. Dust and ashes also bring us face to face with our mortality and remind us that even if we hit the ball out of the park today, we’re still going to die. Our time here is a gift, and our assurance of a life beyond this one rests not on our merits but on Christ’s.

In Psalm 90, Moses tells us we’re nothing more than dust. We are like grass that dries out and blows away. It isn’t his intention to squash our self-image, but he does want to make sure we understand that our value isn’t self-generated. It comes from God. And because our value comes from God, we have a certain responsibility to steward our days well.

Are you a bit too oriented toward the notion that you are at the center, and that all else orbits around your needs?

Or do you tend toward self-flagellation, never seeking yourself as good enough? Not all of us need more dust and ashes. Some of us have lost sight of the fact that we bear the image of God. We live in too much self-condemnation, self-hatred … self. We live self-protectively because we have not yet owned our value and strength. We short-change ourselves by low-balling our value.

We who live too much in dust and ashes need to remember that we are not here simply to exist but to make a difference. For our sake the world was created. God thinks highly of us! In light of that, our challenge is to stop making excuses for why we can’t do more and decide that even if we can’t do everything, we can do something.

Let me say that again: Even if we can’t do everything, we can do something. 

This is the mindset of abundance, which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. His victory over sin and death are my assurance that I don’t do any of this on my own effort, skills or abilities. I do all of life in partnership with God, the creator of the universe, and if God is in it then anything is possible.

Which is your mindset? Dust and ashes … or abundance? Dust and ashes … or image of God? Limit, or possibility?

This is the shift I want for you this year. I want you to move from “why me” thinking to “what now” thinking. Maybe you can’t do everything you’d like but you can do something. What will it be?

God has been planting seeds into your life. What can he harvest, in partnership with you?

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Wanna get rich?

Paul Piff is a psychologist who explores the affect of money on human nature. His team conducted an experiment using a rigged Monopoly game and two college students to whom Piff has given the names “T-shirt” and “Glasses.” When the game begins, T-shirt has $2000 in Monopoly money and collects $200 every time he passes “go,” while Glasses gets $1000 from the Monopoly bank and $100 for passing “go.” T-shirt can roll two dice but Glasses can only roll one. They are given fifteen minutes to play this rigged game while a team of psychologists watches on camera to analyze every facial tick and hand gesture.

T-Shirt has no choice but to win and at first, he acknowledges it. Soon, though, he is whizzing around the board, banging his Rolls Royce game piece as he counts out his turn (the game piece for Glasses is an elf). By the time the game is over, T-shirt is totally self-absorbed — counting moves, counting money, taking his opponent’s money without no sign of sympathy.

The experiment is designed to expose something about how money affects behavior. Piff discovered that “putting someone in a role where they’re more privileged and have more power in a game makes them behave like people who actually do have more power, more money, and more status.”

Money can create the sense of superiority. It has the power to make us influential and also selfish, courageous and also defensive. It has the potential for both blessing and curse, whether you have too much of it or too little.

Jesus tells a story very similar to Piff’s experiment. In his story, a wealthy man gives the equivalent of a hundred years’ wages to one man, forty years’ wages to another, and twenty years’ wages to a third. By any standard, any of those three men are holding great wealth but the comparison causes the third guy to shut down. While the first two invest their funds and produce a 100% return, the third guy buries his investment and has nothing to show for it.

Their story inspires me to think about the psychology, challenges and opportunities surrounding the “haves” and “have-nots.”

Five-talent People: Rejecting self-absorbed power

“I used to spend a lot of time thinking about my money,” a wealthy friend once told me. “I thought about it when I had none of it. I worried about it inordinately then. And when we finally made some money, I worried about losing it.”

For five-talent people, this is an interesting psychological shift. The danger is idolatry in one of two directions: 1) thinking “somehow I did this myself,” my friend says; or 2) thinking “money is what I can lean on and believe in, because money is easier to understand.”

So how do we reject self-absorbed power? The real trick is learning to hold money with an open hand. The answer seems to simplistic: Learn to give.  Those who do discover there is a freedom and joy in the stewardship of money that we simply can’t find in the “ownership” of it.

Two-talent People: Embracing creativity

Kevin Myers talks about the difference between the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant. He says five-talent leaders seem to live above the law of gravity. Things seem to come to them effortlessly. Most of us live under the law of gravity. In other words, Myers says, some people lead in leaps, but most people lead in layers.

Living in layers requires a kind of patience that breeds frustration. The day-in, day-out of making a living can sap the creativity out of life. The challenge for two-talent people is to embrace creative opportunities when they come our way. Maybe we don’t have a ton of resources, but what we thought was impossible might just be possible. This may mean letting go of things we can afford, like impulsive on-line buying and eating out and Starbucks, all of which may actually stifle the bigger dreams God has for us. It also means being more intentional about looking for creative opportunities to serve and give, to make the most of our investments.

One-talent People: Rejecting a spirit of poverty

The challenge of the one-talent person is to reject the spirit of poverty and fear-based habits. Living at the level of survival can keep us from trusting God to provide.

A friend says this: “The clenched fist around that $20 also prevents additional blessings from coming to you. There is a faithfulness that is scary, giving money especially when you don’t have it. Maybe it even brings bigger blessings. Like so much of the gospel that is a paradox, it is when it is hardest to step out that we exercise our faith most …”

The times in my life when I’ve clamped down on everything,” my friend continues, “I’ve suffered for it. When I think, maybe this isn’t a good time, maybe I shouldn’t now … that is exactly the time when I know I need to lean in. I don’t want to say there is such a thing as a prosperity gospel, but I can say that when I give, I am the one who benefits.”

Interesting isn’t it? — that the amount of money doesn’t really change the solution to our management of it. Whatever the level, giving is how we keep a healthy perspective. Giving is how we remember whose money it is and how we keep our imaginations nimble.

The point of giving isn’t that God wants you to send him a check so he can get things done. The point is that the Creator of your life knows how you’re wired and what it will take for you to make the most of this existence.

In a word: give. As with most things of the Kingdom, it isn’t logical but it is true: giving is how we get rich.

 

* Find Paul Piff’s TED talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_piff_does_money_make_you_mean?language=en

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